Sophistication Beyond Measure: The Limits of Railton’s “Sophisticated Hedonism”

It is a long and storied objection that moral philosophy is only a form of hostile autobiography- a way of dictating rules for the world without embracing it. Meta-ethical debates continue, but it is at least some proof against this claim that contemporary moral philosophy concerns itself deeply with how we live our lives, how friendships, relationships, and the demands of everyday life can be attended to while continuing to be moral. Alienation is just one obstacle among many in such efforts, but it is this obstacle which Railton believes he can dissolve by reworking the way we schematize and apply morality. Railton establishes a subjective/objective duality in interpreting a given moral philosophy and posits that by adopting the objective and dismissing the subjective we become sophisticated and avoid the problems of alienation. While Railton’s sophisticated consequentialism is an innovative and structurally sound approach, it fails to defeat alienation by being impracticable: no human being constrained by the limits of ordinary psychology could possibly live such a life.

If only for a fleeting moment of believability, let us admire Railton’s sophisticated consequentialism. His motive here is a worry that the moral points of view, being necessarily universal and impartial, tends to alienate one from life itself, to create “a kind of estrangement, distancing, or separateness resulting in some sort of loss” of that which “compels his allegiance to life itself” (Railton 134, Williams 18). The strict and upright consequentialist might do all the right things for all the right reasons, but he is still going through life as if following a handbook and a (very undependable) calculator- he has lost touch with humanity.

The solution to this alienation then, is to bridge universalized moral principle (in this case consequentialism) with actions that fully (emotionally and otherwise) acknowledge one’s “special relations” within the world (Railton 136). We begin on the starting embankment of moral law- Railton specifies a pluralistic consequentialism aimed at maximizing a set of goods but notes that the bridge he aims to construct “could be made, mutatis mutandis, by a deontologist” (148). From the bank of ideology we … Continue Suffering

Art’s Sense and Importance: Tolstoy and The Human Value of Art

“It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self… It is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.”

— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

David Foster Wallace’s account of depression:  a solemn display of artistic mastery. From his body of work and biography, we know that the depression Wallace describes is one he himself often felt- and yet, experience with depression is no prerequisite in feeling the power behind his words (Weber). Somehow, through Wallace’s artistic expression, we are able to gain sudden insight into a way of being, a way of feeling, that we may never have comprehended before. This perspective sharing enables us to understand something important about life (depression is, after all, a real thing, which real human beings suffer with) and is a fascinating component of art. Sadly, our study of art often fails to investigate this connection between life and art. The purely formal (“art for art’s sake”) and institutional approaches which can dominate our study do have their own merit, but they never seem to explain this profound link between art and our individual lives.

Broadly speaking then (for details will be forthcoming), our aim here is to utilize Tolstoy’s What is Art?, … Continue Suffering

Lamprocles (Novella)

“Alas, my Child! That which saves the lives of others, proves thy destruction, even thy sire’s love; to thee thy father’s nobility has proved no boon”

Euripides, Trojan Women


-399 B.C.-

The first man he had brought death to was his father. He brought it to him in a dirty golden goblet, stained purple with the earthy poison it often held. His mother had forfeited the (not insubstantial) silver for the mixture, and the People had been kind enough to provide the goblet itself. Thus was Lamprocles, the fittest of his family, reduced to Death’s delivery-boy.

Despite years of similar service for his mother, he was not a very fast courier: he moved towards his destination in a cautious stabilizing tread. This was somewhat necessary, as he had to overcome the city’s most recent scars- scattered mounds of splintered stone and shredded wood. As he climbed over these remains of the Athenians’ once grand wall, he kept his goblet-hand locked and extended, so as not to spill the mixture. Were he one year younger, he would have engineered such a spill rather than avoid it. He would have run in quiet tears to his mother and claimed there was an accident on the road or an incident at the herbalist’s store. She would have consoled and lightly scolded him, then turned to her father for another loan to pay for the second dose. She would have gone herself the second time, to beg the storekeeper for another mixture at a reduced price so that her children would not be hungry while they mourned. All the shame, dishonesty, and poverty, he would have endured- if only it bought his father the time it took to deliver a second mixture.

But Lamprocles was thirteen years of age, and though not yet a man, he had begun to understand what it was that would make him so. Honor and Duty obligated him to guard the goblet with his life. He was more than willing to lay down his life- he had, in fact, planned to do so, to drink the hemlock himself … Continue Suffering

Aesthetic Self-destruction: Ugliness as Entropy and the Disruption of Order

If, as Socrates wished us to believe, Philosophy is a field of questions, then aesthetics must be the field which asks the question of art. Yet, any study of art leads inevitably to considering art as an exploratory form itself seeking answers, as itself a form of questioning. Perhaps then the concern of the aesthetic philosopher should not be “What is art?” but “What is art asking? What does it seek to explore?”. In the realm of the positive, the beautiful and the pleasing, these questions do not seem to diverge: art is that which is beautiful (or some other positive quality) and its intention is to explore that beauty. In the negative, however, in the manifestation of ugliness and the unappealing, we see art complete its exploration but find as answer something wholly disturbing or unacceptable. We know this unsightliness when we encounter it (a sudden aversion, a headshaking revulsion, a disgusted frown, a provocation to righteous anger- ugliness always manages to engender a response), but what exactly is this negative aesthetic answer? What is ugliness? Taking Ruth Lorand’s account as our guide (with supplements from Michael Carmichael and Frank Sibley) we will attempt to prove here that negative aesthetic reactions, generally, arise from a disruption of order and that ugliness, specifically, is the manifestation of chaos and its inevitable conquest of order (i.e. entropy).

Beginning, as Lorand does, with straightforward ugliness, we can identify the foundational role of disorder quite directly. Lorand equates beauty with order by telling us that already the concept “is implied by many aestheticians” when they say beautiful art is “constructed of parts… fitted to give pleasure and satisfaction” or that the object is “well organized [with] every element is in its right place,” but here we can conceive of order even more broadly (402). Order, taken without specificity, merely implies the existence of some system, some way for the presented elements to be organized. In this sense, both a philosophical theory and a city are orderly, while a dice roll or an explosion are not (or, at least, are less orderly). In essence, … Continue Suffering

Partiality As Life-Philosophy: Reconciling Morality with Life

First, a story. Not mine, Plato’s.

Socrates faces the end of his life. The Athenian jury condemned him to death months ago, the sacred rite during which executions are prohibited ended yesterday, and he has so many times refused to allow his friends to aid in an escape that they no longer bother him with it. But they still come. They come to do what Socrates has always taught them to do: question, postulate, discuss, question again, question again. Phaedo, Apollodorus, Simmias, and Cebes have come, even Crito has found a place to sit and rest his aged legs while he farewells his old friend. The guard, Ctesippus, must come soon, but in the many months of Socrates’ stay at the jail he has come to know Socrates well and wishes to delay his duty as long as possible.

Here at the precipice of his death, Socrates is visited by his family: Xanthippe his wife, Lamprocles his teenage son, and the two babies. Pheado, the teller of this tale, is pre-occupied with the philosophical dialogue at hand and so we do not know what Socrates said to his grieving wife and children. There was speculation (primarily from Xenophon) of much animosity within the family (specifically, that Xanthippe was a harsh mother and argumentative wife), but this is largely believed to be apocryphal (if she disliked him so much, why would she be with him on the eve of his death?). Nevertheless, Plato tells us that Socrates neither labored for money nor visited home very often, preferring the company of his students and the public marketplace- it is unlikely this state of affairs was very conducive to a healthy family atmosphere (especially in ancient Athens, where women could barely leave the house without their husbands). When Socrates returns to the dialogue, he tells his friends “I sent the women away, to avoid unseemliness, for I am told one should die in a good omened silence:” he did not want the grieving of his family to disrupt the discussion and respect of his death (Plato 117e).

If one has come to the … Continue Suffering

Gravity Never Changes

[A strange mutated hybrid of a short story. I wrote it for a class, but also needed to include commentary on a recent pop. scientific article, so the dialogue is a bit… extemporaneous (read: nonsensical) at times, and the story is a bit… well, odd. ]


As the hour grew late, Christopher Marlow watched the earth, like a ballet dancer of infinite poise, spin and move ever so slightly, obscuring the spotlight of the sun. The last shafts of dusklight pierced his study’s stained glass windows and enkindled the waves of dust that floated through the room. The room lacked any other light, and for a time, all that could be seen was Christopher Marlo in a brown tweed chair, surrounded, as if imprisoned, by horizontal pillars of radiant dust. Marlo shut his book, and the illusion dissipated with the fleeing dust. Though he read in his study by the waning sunlight nearly every day, today would be the last time his books saw sunlight. Today was unique.

As the grandfather clocks leaning on the wall chimed 7:00 PM a tall man, not three years older than Marlo and bearing a distinct resemblance to him, entered the study. He walked as if gravity had decided to play favorites- and had become particularly attached to him. With a subtle nod from Marlo, the visitor selected the nearest chair and sunk into it. The cushions rose to meet his not insignificant weight, and his feet were soon resting on a green ottoman that had caught his eye.

“Long time, no see John- or am I supposed to call you Dr. Senior Professor Emeritus Nebula award winner Johnathan Speare?” asked Marlo with a sly smile.

“Funny” said Speare flatly. “You know very well my e-mail automatically generates that signature- I’d change it if I could.”

“Only teasing- hey, it’s not like my name’s gotten any shorter since the wedding.”

“Yeah yeah, I’m just tired. You know, long day.” Speare shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  “Say how is Karen nowadays, anyway?”

“Fine. She took little Emily on vacation to Disney World … Continue Suffering

Neutrality vs. Power Bias: A Power Analysis of Linguistic Change on the Internet

[Some unusual territory for me: An amateur linguistic analysis of some recent trends on the internet.]

The internet, glorified in the abstract like much of modern technology, is often idealized as a universal medium of communication that promotes globalization, convenient and cheap education, community cohesion, and a host of other social goods. John Barlow, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, claimed

“cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications… We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth… a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs… We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge… The only law that we recognize is the Golden Rule” (Barlow).  

The assumption being made in this veneration, is that humanity, if somehow able to achieve perfect communication, will naturally recoil from all evils- that communicative unity can only bring about good. A powerful counter-example can be found in Orwell’s 1984, in which an all-powerful totalitarian central government enslaves the minds of its citizens by enforcing universal patterns of speech. “Newspeak” it is termed, and it “was intended to make all other forms of thought impossible… a heretical thought- a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc [the totalitarian government]- would be literally unthinkable” (Orwell 300). Certainly, in this case, the universal communication established in the fictional Oceania is not for the good. It illustrates that communication, no matter how universal, is ultimately modified by the dynamics of power, for better, worse, or neither.

This principle is not limited to fictional exemplification: it is embodied in the very creation of the internet. An analysis of the development of the internet, from ARPANET in 1969 to the dominance of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, leads us to abandon any traditional narrative of a communication network novel in its neutrality, in favor of an internet that, while explicitly striving for neutrality, is deeply seated in an English language bias … Continue Suffering

A Time Traveler at Plato’s Symposium

It really was ridiculous, the entire thing was ridiculous. Nearly one and a half hours in, everything was ridiculous to Henry. The lights were too bright, the makeup too itchy, the table too big and too short, the marble floor too uncomfortable, the couches even, so luxurious to look at, were itchy and lacked proper back support. But it was almost over: that was what most consoled Henry, but also what most concerned him.

If he failed, if he jumped over a line, if he stuttered, even if he said a sentence or two out of order, the entire thing would have to be redone. Lord Above! Whose crazy idea was it to shoot an entire damned two hour movie in one take?!? Probably that “artsy” director’s idea, accused Henry. He was some famous foreign director, long Greek name that didn’t make any sense, thick indecipherable accent, curly mustache, even that ridiculous beret; he fit the fancy director archetype to a T. Yet, he couldn’t really hate the director too much, Henry was no film critic, but he understood the importance of his own role. The director had taken liberties with the source material; Henry’s character was a new addition to the classic Symposium, endowed with the knowledge and expertise of the modern philosopher. His character was meant to represent the modern attitude, to breathe new life into a work that many believed had lost its relevance. On the other hand, Henry wasn’t one of those ridiculous “method” actors; he didn’t know and didn’t care how he was supposed to bring about this modern spin.

Henry continued his reflection, until he noticed something had changed. Some constant noise that had been droning on for the last 25 minutes had transformed into what sounded like… applause?! Smacked with an overwhelming tide of anxiety, Henry realized that Christopher (who was playing Socrates) had finished his speech and that he, like his companions, should be clapping. Henry froze. He couldn’t move. Thousands of thoughts raced through his head. Without his will, his body stood erect. He looked at the director, saw his concerned … Continue Suffering